BBC refuses to air Gaza fundraising appeal


LONDON — The wisdom of Solomon is required — and for the last seven decades has been completely absent — when it comes to dealing with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Collateral damage is unavoidable to institutions and individuals who get in the way.

As the dust settles over the rubble of the latest flare-up in Gaza, the BBC finds itself in the middle of a damaging row over the conflict. The BBC's executives announced late last week that the government-funded broadcaster would not air a charity appeal for humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza. The three-minute long public service spot was made by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella group of thirteen British charities including Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and the British Red Cross.

In the recent past the BBC has broadcast appeals from DEC on behalf of victims of conflict in Darfur and Congo as well as the Christmas Tsunami in 2004. The refusal to show one related to Gaza immediately brought forth howls of protest.

Several thousand people turned up at BBC headquarters on Saturday to demand the corporation air the appeal. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said the BBC was wrong and urged its executives to reconsider its decision. Fifty members of parliament signed a petition demanding the BBC reconsider. Even members of the British cabinet were critical: Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, sent a letter to the BBC's executives, expressing his "disappointment" and adding "the support of broadcasters is highly effective and extremely valued" by DEC.

The BBC is in a difficult position. Funded by the license fee, a tax on each television-owning household, it dominates the broadcasting scene in Britain. The British feel like they own the BBC because in a very real sense they do. It is the largest broadcast news organization in the world and it has frequently come under pressure from both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for alleged bias.

Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, explained the reasons for his decision Monday in an interview on the BBC's flagship radio news program, Today. Gaza, he told interviewer John Humphreys is "a political crisis, with a grave humanitarian consequences." He added there were many ongoing political questions hovering around Israel's recent actions. "Would there be a War Crimes trial? Would Hamas" supervise the distribution of the aid? The Corporation's executives feared that broadcasting the appeal would be seen as "endorsing one side or another" in a news story that was still ongoing.

Asked if he thought the DEC appeal was politically motivated, Thompson ducked. "It's not for me to say."

DEC's chief executive, Brendan Gormley, said Thompson's concerns about Hamas control were misplaced. The aid collected would be used to help both sides in the conflict, including communities in southern Israel that have been targeted by Hamas rockets.

In a statement issued Monday, Gormley said once again that DEC's members were non-political. “This is a charitable appeal. We work on the basis of humanitarian need and there is an urgent need in Gaza today. Political solutions are for others to resolve."

The three-minute-long appeal aired Monday night during the news programs of ITV, Channel Four and Channel Five. The publicity generated by the controversy has probably made more people aware of DEC's appeal than will actually see the controversial public service announcement on the news.

Over the weekend, Mark Thompson and his team were isolated in their decision, but Monday they were joined by Sky News, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Sky chief executive, John Ryley, said the 24-hour news channel would not broadcast the appeal for fear of undermining its' editorial impartiality.

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